What is a Pollinator?

A pollinator is any insect, bird, or mammal that moves pollen from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma of a flower of the same species.

One morning I read an article on the effects of pesticides on pollinators. In the article was a picture of a bee curled up on the ground after ingesting nectar from a flower that had been sprayed while attempting to eradicate mosquitoes. As sad as this was, it motivated me to help. For 35 years I have taught and lectured on Alternatives to Pesticides in the garden, so I began my latest challenge as a “Pollinator Advocate.” Pollinators are in trouble, in part, due to practices that some of us have performed on our planet including our landscapes, farms, and gardens.

This has been done unknowingly of the harm to these beneficial insects that are essentially providing us with plant based nutrition that fuels our bodies, fibers to clothe us, spices and medicines, oxygen, and a stunning array of flowers.

illustration of the pollinator cycle

A pollinator is any insect, bird, or mammal that moves pollen from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma of a flower of the same species. This simple action allows the plant to make seed and reproduce. 90% of plant species require a pollinator to reproduce.

bee covered in pollen on a hibiscus flower

Image Credit: Luc Viatour.

Bee in a Hibiscus Flower clearly showing how easy pollen granules are moved from flower to flower.

Actually, we can be a pollinator by using a small brush and taking pollen from one plant and dabbing it on the other. We aren’t very fast or efficient but we can be called a pollinator. Perhaps we could classify the most efficient pollinators in 7 major groups:

  1. Beetles – the oldest of the pollinators. They are most well know for their pollination of Magnolias. They are a bit cumbersome and some of the pollen that collects on their feet and body is lost as it moves from flower to flower in its quest for nectar.
  2. Bees – Bees are often what we think of when we think pollination but surprisingly social bees such as honey bees and bumble bees are a small percentage of our pollinators. Solitary bees such as leaf cutter, green metallic and others are among the 20,000 species of bees that pollinate.
  3. Flies – Flies are pollinators of chocolate. There are also flies called Hover flies that have a larva stage that is a great predator for pest management. I see these larvae eating my plump orange aphids on my milkweed.
  4. Moths – Most moths are nocturnal and many are good pollinators. As a bonus they lay eggs on plants that provide caterpillars for most momma birds to feed their young, so they provide double benefits in the garden
  5. Butterflies – Most butterfly species pollinate, and some are the primary pollinator for certain flowers. They are eye candy in the garden always encouraging us to pause and enjoy their beauty.
  6. Hummingbirds – are only in the Western Hemisphere and assist in pollination for those tubular flowers that some pollinators have a hard time getting in.
  7. Bats – pollinator over 500 plant species including mango, banana, cocoa and agave (used to make tequila).

If pollinators can’t fit in tubular flowers like hummingbirds can, they will make a slit like in this Cuphea blossom, to rob the nectar but don’t pollinate because they are sneaking in the flower and not making contact with pollen. They are fondly referred to as Nectar Robbers.

”nectar

Image Credit: Ann Barklow.

Other Resources:

More Educational Material:

UC Davis Pollinator Resources

Author Ann Barklow

Ann is a Certified Horticulturist, Master Gardener and Arborist with 35 years in the Horticultural and Landscaping Field. In her community, she serves on the Piedmont Tech Horticultural Advisory committee along with Bee City USA, America in Bloom, Lakeland's Master Gardener Board of Directors, and the Festival of Flowers Committee. She is a Strategic Partner with Park Seed Company, Wayside Gardens, and Jackson & Perkins - educating on pollinators and wildlife.